Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside 2/6

Socialism and Reversal in China’s Countryside: From Great Leap to Flying Leap Part 2/6

The roots of the Cultural Revolution are in the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap was the first attempt at reaching a higher level socialism that could serve as an immediate bridge to communism. The record of the Great Leap is a mixed one of both successes and errors. Many errors occurred as a result of going too far, too fast. However, Mao had the view that progress happened in waves. And, to go too far, too fast, was part of the learning process. Mao expressed the sentiment, repeated from Heraclitus to Marx, that “disequilibrium is normal and absolute whereas equilibrium is temporary and relative.” (1) Again: “there is nothing worse than a stagnant pond.” As Maoist theorist Chen Boda implied, Maoism rings a jacobin tone by embracing extremes, radical shifts, and conflicts as part of the process of moving forward. (2) And, it was following the Great Leap that the final, major conflict began to take shape within the Party leadership. Two factions emerged: a communist one and a capitalist one. Revisionists, the capitalists, are those who responded to the difficulties of the Great Leap with efforts to slow down, reverse socialism and restore capitalism. The Maoists sought to overcome difficulties by continuing the forward motion, by continuing to advance toward communism. During the years following the Great Leap, but prior to the Cultural Revolution, an uneasy compromise was struck between these factions as they prepared their forces for the life and death struggles of the next decade and a half. Maoist warnings of capitalist restoration were not mere rhetoric in a power-play between egos as bourgeois narratives suggest. Rather, such warnings referred to the very real, concrete policies that were being advanced in response to the difficulties of the Great Leap by those around Liu Shaoqi. And, after the Maoists seized power from their opponents, including Liu Shaoqi, through the Cultural Revolution, they implemented a second, improved version of the Great Leap, the Flying Leap from 1968 to 1970. For the vast majority of Chinese residing in the countryside, this wave of radical programs and class struggle was the high point of socialism in China. Yet socialism would begin to be reversed only a few years later, partially under the Chairman’s watch.

Maoist economics 1.0, the Great Leap Forward

In 1957, the Chinese leadership sought to expand agriculture production. Collectivization into cooperatives was carried out in the previous years, but now the Maoist leadership sought to make a leap to a higher level of socialism. However, there was a shortage in capital. Thus the leadership sought to shift away from capital-intensive to work-intensive approaches. (3) A main Maoist assumption was that the labor-intensive projects in agriculture and industry would not require, would not drain, capital, but rather, would generate capital. (4) This would be aided by China’s vast population, its vast labor reserves would make up for lack of capital. And, in the process, the leadership would tackle seasonal unemployment that affected 75 percent of the peasantry. In place of a heavy reliance on technology, the Maoist model of development would begin to take shape. The Maoist approach would place great emphasis on class struggle, mass movements, social experiment, collectivization of life, ideological indoctrination, moral incentives over material ones, politics in command, etc. The Maoist model conceived of itself as a bridge to communism, the elimination of all oppression. The Great Leap was the first time that a distinctively Maoist, socialist model took shape.

Even though Mao upheld Stalin overall, he criticized Stalin’s relationship with the peasants. Unlike the Soviet experience of collectivization, Maoists used a softer touch in the countryside. (5) During the early Great Leap, the leadership would rely on the experiments of mass mobilization that it had used from 1950 to 1956, expanding them and taking such mobilizations to new levels. The peasants of the countryside would be in a permanent mobilization, a kind of war-footing for production. This, combined with mass line, provided for a greater degree of bottom-up and spontaneous initiative and participation by the peasants themselves. The Maoists had always seen a connection between politics and production. This would be taken to new levels in the following years. According to Maoist theory, gradual development would be surpassed by quantitative and qualitative leaps. Reliance on the masses would unlock the productive potential of China’s countryside. Fetters on production would be blown away. All of this aimed toward propelling society toward communism. These elements would continue to be central to the Maoist developmental model as it contended against its revisionist competitors all the way through the end of the Maoist era in the 1970s.

Contrary to Soviet, top-down, central planning, the Maoist model of the Great Leap implied the dismantling of the centralized bureaucracy and economic planning organs. The Maoist approach transfered decision making to the production units. The full utilization of local resources and labor power required decentralization down to the localities. This would harness the full creativity of local initiative and enthusiasm of the masses. (6) Self reliance, not to be reliant on a central authority, was also a large part of the Maoist outlook. Central to the new Maoist model were the People’s Communes.

The communes were not just experiments in egalitarianism. They also arose out of the concrete need to better handle the rural environment, especially water control and irrigation. Prior to the communes, a radicalization of the countryside was already underway as a byproduct of large construction projects. Peasants from different backgrounds and localities had been brought together under a militaristic discipline in brigades and teams to carry out large tasks. Prior organizational forms were not big enough to handle the large water projects, in which every canal that was created would be at the expense of somebody’s land. By pooling their resources and making joint plans, peasants insured that nobody had to starve. (7) (8)

In the months leading up to the formation of the People’s Communes in 1958, there was a struggle between the Maoist left versus the right and revisionist wing of the Party. On the conservative side were people such as Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun and Bo Yibo. On the other side were Mao, Chen Boda, and, for a time, Liu Shaoqi — although Liu Shaoqi would later lead the opposition to the Maoists as “the number one capitalist roader.” The rightists favored slower pace and capital intensive strategy for development. They emphasized the limitations placed on development by insurmountable “objective conditions.” The Maoists championed “greater, faster, better, and more economical results.” The Maoists emphasized “revolutionary enthusiasm” and the human factor. In addition, the Maoist left sought higher levels of collectivization, they sought to combine the existing cooperatives into larger units. These larger units would become the People’s Communes. In a pattern that Mao would later repeat at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Mao circumvented the bureaucratic machine of the Party and state. Instead of going through bureaucratic channels. Mao first secured the support of provincial secretaries at regional conferences during the first months of 1958. Mao circumvented the central authorities by pitching his strategy directly to the lower level cadres. However, even at the lower levels, Mao’s efforts did not go completely unopposed. One provincial rightist who met Mao said that the Chairman talked “greater, faster, better and more economical” as if he were “chanting odes and prayers.” The rightist cautioned against Mao’s theory of leaps. (9) (10) However, the issue would soon be settled. Following Mao’s plan, the Henan provincial leadership went forward to move toward higher collectivization. They went ahead with mergers of cooperatives, forming People’s Communes. They did this before receiving permission from the central Party authority. The formation of the first communes were carried out by enthusiastic local activists close to the grass roots. Thus Mao was able to present the communes to the Party higher-ups as a fait accompli. Chen Boda first introduced the word “communes” on July 1st, 1958. (11) (12) Later, Mao would remark positively on the communes, “the people’s communes are fine,” setting off a whirlwind, nationwide, semi-spontaneous movement to form more and more communes. With his allies in the provincial leadership, Mao was able to outmaneuver his conservative opposition concentrated in the central bureaucracies. In the spring of 1958, Mao then won over the majority of the Party leadership.

The policies decided on between 1957 and 1958 became known as the Three Red Banners:

1. the general line of socialist construction, simultaneous development of industry and agriculture using both modern and traditional methods.

2. the Great Leap Forward to “catch up and surpass” the per capita production of heavy industry with Great Britain within fifteen years, by 1972.

3. the People’s Communes, large rural collectives that were to become the basic unit of society to develop all aspects of society. (13)

By mid-July of 1958 communes had been established in most parts of China. However, communes were not uniform. In some places communes were only loose federations of cooperatives. In other places, communes exceeded expectations, going far beyond Party goals, collectivizing at even higher levels, collectivizing even more aspects of life. In general, four types of communes came into being:

1. The most wide-spread, the rural commune, included about 5,000 households and was mostly identical to a hsiang. As example of this kind of commune, the Leda commune in Henan, formed from 22 cooperatives. It had 4,746 households and 22,568 members. 53 villages were part of it. There were old people’s homes, 22 kindergartens, and 108 mess halls.

2. Urban communes were established on on the basis of city districts. One example, the West -Taigang commune in Henan had 10,618 households and 37,432 members. It extended 60 streets. It included 54 small factories and workshops. It had three elementary schools, a vocational school, 49 mess halls and 107 kindergartens, but no old people’s homes.

3. There were urban communes with some agricultural established on the basis of a large factory. One example was the commune of the textile-machinery factory at Zhengzhou, Henan. 10, 559 peasants in suburban districts were responsible for the food supply. The staff and workers totaled 30,000. There were several elementary schools, two secondary schools. and a number of vocational institutions. It had mess halls, kindergartens, old people’s homes, community rooms, a cinema and a hospital.

4. The large rural commune was for a period considered the ideal, but rarely was implemented. A example was the commune of Xushui county in Henan. It has 238 villages in twenty hsiang with 64,640 households and 314,444 people. It’s work army consisted of 65,181 men and 52,622 women. Abut 135,000 acres of arable land was managed by the commune. The commune had 2,400 workshops, 1,498 mess-halls, 374 kindergartens and 75 nurseries. There were schools, club houses, a few cinemas and a theatre. (14)

In 1957, Mao spoke of “contradictions under socialism.” The problem of bureaucracy occupied the minds of the Maoists. (15) The communes were an instrument to addressed this problem. The Party’s original description of the communes was that they were voluntarily established by working people under Party leadership. Communes were to be an expression of proletarian democracy. Weixing (Sputnik) was the first official commune. The 43,000 member commune was established in April of 1958 in Henan province. Its bylaws articulated this democratic ideal:

“The highest authority of the commune was the congress of the commune, which set policy. The congress included representative from all sectors of society: women, youth, old people, cultural and educational workers, medical workers, scientific and technical workers, the personnel of industrial enterprises, traders and minority people. The management committee will be elected by the congress to take charge of the commune’s affairs.” (16)

Communes were to be a new power, in some ways displacing the traditional power, even the state. This new power was to enable the transition to communism. In the Soviet Union, collectives were not to take on such a central role. Even in the Soviet Union, peasants and workers remained at a long arm’s length from power. The communes were to bridge the gap. Having authority concentrated in the commune meant that workers and peasants were much closer to the decision making process. Communes sought to bridge the contradiction of interests, thus moving closer to communism and “ownership of the whole people.” Communes, it was thought, might still exist as cells within a future society without oppression, within a communist society. (17)

Communes were to manage all industrial and agricultural production, trade, culture and education. Communes organized production. Communes could mobilize people for tasks at any time. Communes distributed the harvest. Under the commune authority were the Production Brigades. Under the brigades were the production teams. Eventually, the brigade would be settled on as the economic accounting unit. The team was only the work unit, whose property was restricted to small tools like shovels and spades, etc. Communes took over the property, land and capital of the cooperatives. Houses, trees, bushes, animals, water sources, machines and larger tools were taken over by the commune. The system of remuneration was controlled by the commune. Equal distribution of parts of the basic food supply were combined with distribution according to work. In the case of an abundant harvest, food was to be distributed according to need, this was the experimental free supply system. (20) Work was assigned to the brigades and teams by the communes. Communes established people’s banks. Infrastructure such as streets, canals and telephone lines were controlled by the communes. Communes controlled the rural militias. They organized political tasks in the area of the commune. The commune authority replaced the People’s Congress and People’s Government Council of the township. Thus the administration of townships was combined and united with administration of the communes. (18) Communes were given the task of “creating the conditions for the gradual transition to the communist system of substituting step by step the distribution principle of: ‘From each according to his work’ with the distribution principle: ‘From each according to his needs!’ (19) As one article stated, “[the People’s Communes] are the best basic form of organization in China’s socialist society, and will be the best for the attainment of socialism and the transition to communism.” (21)

In the communes, the work hours were long. In the second half of 1958 people could work twelve hours a day, more during harvest time. Work was often regimented, organized using military models. Workers were divided into labor companies and labor platoons. In some places, peasants went to work marching in military formation. For example, in a village in Hebei, 400 women and 600 men were organized into a “shock labor brigade” to promote “militarization, combatization, and disciplinization.” Sometimes, workers carried guns while they worked in the fields. Work was done under the red flag. The workforce was sometimes described as a “work army.” (22) In some model communes, traditional housing was torn down and barracks were established as part of the collectivization and militarization of life. But, most communes did not follow this practice, which came to be seen as ultra-left. Most communes did not replace housing with barracks. (23) Military metaphors were applied to production. Tasks and nature itself were to be “conquered.” For example, in 1958, the population was mobilized to move 580 million cubic meters of earth in dam and water projects. (24) One famous error was the “battle” against the sparrows, which was part of an anti-pests campaign. Sparrows were considered one of the four pests. Child “soldiers” went out to kill as many of the birds as possible “The whole people, including five-year old children, must be mobilized to wipe out the four pests,” Mao stated on May 18, 1958. This disasterous error, couched in military language, led to tremendous loss of grain. Sparrows, as it turns out, consume insects that destroy grain. Insect infestation followed the campaign against sparrows. Later, in April of 1960, bedbugs would be substituted for sparrows as a fourth pest. (25)

The goal was to create a workforce that was motivated by moral and political, rather than material incentives. The desire for a more just and equal society was to replace the desire for higher wages. A new kind of humanity would emerge alongside the new society. This new humanity would be willing to sacrifice their private gain in order to build a new, better world. However, at the same time, this message was often contradicted with the promise that a society of total abundance, communism, was just around the corner. This later mistake sometimes led to disaster when peasants, believing that total abundance was around the corner, consumed their future harvests. This mistake would not be repeated in the second attempt to return to the Maoist model of development under Lin Biao from 1968 to 1970. Instead, in the second attempt in the Lin Biao era, austerity and military spartanism was preached as part of the communist ideal. (26)

Contrary to stereotypes, communes were not to be all work. For example, Weixing (Sputnik), the first official commune, was charged with creating activities for people during their leisure time:

“The commune shall encourage cultural, recreational, and sports activities among the masses so as to bring forward communist people healthy in body and in mind. Steps should be taken to ensure that each commune has its own library, theatre, and film projector teams; that the production contingent has its own club room, amature theatrical troupe, choir and sports team; and that each production brigade has a small reading room and radio sets.” (27)

There was an effort to collectivize almost all of life. Not only was private property collectivized, but social functions such as the preparation of meals and, sometimes, even the raising of children were collectivized. These social functions are historically tied to patriarchy. The communes often aimed to end these oppressive aspects of the patriarchal family. To this end, communes established mess halls that provided two meals a day plus snacks. They also created nurseries, kindergartens and old people’s homes. People still lived in their homes, but management of their homes was transfered to the commune. Women’s work, such as preparing meals and raising children, was taken over by the commune. (28) The communes also set up sewing teams “to free women from household labor.” (29) This was part of ending patriarchy, advancing closer to the ideal of communism, the ending of all oppression. The organ of the Communist Youth League reported:

“[N]ow, as private estates, houses, and even part of the livestock has passed into the People’s Commune’s property, all bands which still tied the peasants to their property have been severed and they feel freer and more light-hearted than in former times. The peasantry say: ‘It makes no difference where we move. At any rate, we are at home in our Ch’aoying home.’ There is nothing in their homes which they long for. The People’s Commune is their home.

Now there are mess-halls and kindergartens in the villages. All houses are locked because all inhabitants march to the fields or to the workshops. The old habit of cooking in each individual household or raising the children there can no longer be observed. The framework of the individual family, which has existed for thousands of years, has been completely destroyed.” (30)

Society was to be propelled toward communist, almost overnight. Mao stated that “deceleration” was wrong, those who opposed “rushing ahead” were letting the people down. In Moscow, on November 18, 1957, Mao stated that if the Soviet Union could catch up with the United States in the production of steel in 15 years, then China could catch up with Britain. Later, Mao would say that they would catch up to Britain in two or three years. Although Mao occasionally backed away from his statements, his overall push in terms of timetables was ultra-left. Mao stated in January 18, 1958:

“Our nation is like an atom… When the atom’s nucleus is smashed the thermal energy that is released will have really tremendous power. We shall be able to do things that we could not do before. When our nation has this great energy we shall catch up with Britain in fifteen years…” (31)

This ultra-left hyperbole was repeated over and over. Chen Boda supported Mao’s tempo, writing that China was entering a period when “a day equals twenty years.” (32) In 1958, newspapers reported that the transition to communism should be completed in twenty years. A month later, this prediction was reduced to only ten or fifteen years. The Communist Youth League journal reported that those who were in their 70s or 80s would “live to see the Communist society.” (33) The Central Committee stated, “the attainment of communism in China is no longer a remote future event. We actively use the people’s commune to explore the practical road of transition to communism.” (34) Many skeptics dropped their reservations, joining in with the wave of enthusiasm.

Even though errors were made, the Great Leap did unleash the masses in order to reach for a better world. The theme of conquering all obstacles reoccurs throughout the literature of the Chinese revolution Most famously, it is the theme of Mao’s famous parable The Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountains. In the parable, hard and patient work allow the foolish old man to complete a seemingly impossible task, removing twin mountains, which represent feudalism and imperialism. Mao had a deep belief in people power. During the Great Leap, this spirit was captured by the lyrics of a popular song:

“In heaven, there is no Jade Emperor,

On Earth, there is no Dragon King.

I am the Jade Emperor, I am the Dragon King.

I order the three mountains and five peaks:

‘Make Way, here I come!’” (35)

The versions of the communes at the beginning of the Great Leap reflected a utopian, farsighted, communist vision for society. A quarter of the world’s population was mobilized to make the transition to communism a reality. Communes were to eliminate the difference between town and countryside, between peasants and workers, between mental and manual labor, and even abolish the state’s domestic functions. (36) Even though the first attempt at implementing the Maoist model ran into problems, especially ultra-left excesses, its basic goals were correct. The Maoist model’s emphasis on class struggle, participation by the masses, social experiment, politics and ideology, and collectivization of life were correct. However, this model would be reversed to a large degree by revisionists following the difficulties of the Great Leap.


1. Maurice Meisner. Mao’s China and After (Free Press USA: 1977), p. 209

2. Chen Boda. Notes on Mao Tse-tung’s “Report of an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (Foreign Language Press 1954), p. 34

3. Jurgen Domes, Socialism in the Chinese Countryside (McGill-Queen’s University Press 1980), p. 20-22

4. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 221

5. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 220

6. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 222

7. Anna Louise Strong, “The Rise of the Chinese People’s Communes,” from People’s China edited by David Milton, Nancy Milton, ad Franz Schurman (Random House 1974), p. 308

8. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 235

9. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 23-24

10. Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge University Press 2001), p. 73

11. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 25

12. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 232

13. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 24

14. Jurgan Domes, 1980, p. 29-31

15. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 169

16. “Tentative Regulations (draft) of the Weixing (Sputnik) People’s Commune, August 7, 1958,” The People’s Republic of China edited by Mark Selden (Monthly Review Press USA: 1979), p. 399

17. Anna Louise Strong, 1974, p. 30

18. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 29-32

19. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 30

20. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 32

21. Wu Chih-pu. From Agricultural Producers’ Cooperatives to People’s Communes. Hongqi No. 8, September 16, 1958.

22. Judith Shapiro, 2001, p. 69

23. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 26-27

24. Judith Shapiro, 2001, p. 67

25. Judith Shapiro, 2001, p. 86-88

26. The error of promising abundance around the corner, the Amerikan lifestyle, is connected to both the errors of First Worldism and the Theory of Productive Forces. Capitalists tell the masses that everyone can live like Amerikans. Of course, this First Worldist error isn’t true. Amerikans only live like they do because Amerikans, including their working class, exploit the Third World. Socialism does not mean that everyone gets to live like Amerikans. In fact, it means that Amerikans will have to make do with less. This First Worldism was implied in some of the rhetoric by Mao and others at the time. It is connected to the Theory of Productive Forces’ assertion that Amerikans are wealthy, not because they exploit the Third World, but because they have technology.

27. “Tentative Regulations (draft) of the Weixing (Sputnik) People’s Commune, August 7, 1958,” The People’s Republic of China edited by Mark Selden (Monthly Review Press USA: 1979), p. 401

28. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 32-33

29. “Tentative Regulations (draft) of the Weixing (Sputnik) People’s Commune, August 7, 1958,” The People’s Republic of China edited by Mark Selden (Monthly Review Press USA: 1979), p. 400

30. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 33

31. Mao Zedong. “Speech at the Sipreme State Conference, January 18, 1958,” The People’s Republic of China edited by Mark Selden (Monthly Review Press USA: 1979), p. 382

32. Judith Shapiro, 2001, p. 72-74

33. Jurgen Domes, 1980, p. 29

34. William A. Joseph. The Critique of Ultra-Leftism in China, 1958-1981 (Stanford University Press 1984), p. 84

35. Judith Shapiro, 2001, p. 68

36. Maurice Meisner, 1977, p. 212

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